Watching 'John Paul II' With Benedict XVI

VATICAN CITY — On Nov. 17, Vatican's Paul VI Hall was crowded by 7,000 people surrounding Pope Benedict XVI, who sat on a white chair in the center of the hall.

The lights went off. Suddenly, a huge screen burst into color. A sensation of the extraordinary surged in the audience as we started watching a movie with the Holy Father about the previous Holy Father.

It was the premiere of “John Paul II,” a four-hour miniseries that will be broadcast Dec. 4 and 7 in the United States. In collaboration with RAI Italian public television and CBS in the United States, the mini-series was produced by Lux Vide, an Italian Catholic company well known for its religious movies.

Starring Academy Award winner Jon Voight, the film starts with the Polish Pope in his open campagnola greeting pilgrims at the Wednesday audience of May 13, 1981. Two shots resound in St. Peter's Square. The Pope falls into the arms of his personal secretary, bright-red blood gushing from his stomach.

As the ambulance speeds to the hospital, short memories of his childhood and election to the See of Peter flood John Paul's agonizing mind.

The 1981 assassination attempt serves as the axis of rotation for the miniseries’ reconstruction of John Paul's pontificate. After viewing the film, Pope Benedict reminded us of the words his predecessor wrote in his testament about surviving the attempt on his life.

“Divine Providence saved me in a miraculous way from death,” John Paul wrote. “He who is the only Lord of life and death has prolonged my life; in a certain sense, he has given it to me anew. From this moment on, it belongs to him even more.”

Suffering is one of the movie's main themes, as it was in Karol Wojtyla's life and pontificate.

“Why did God put this obstacle on my way?” asked John Paul in the movie after breaking his femur and being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

The answer is given by the same Pope in a 1996 confidence: “In these days of sickness, I came to understand better the value of the service to the Church the Lord has called me to undertake as a priest, as a bishop and as a successor to Peter — it also passes through the gift of suffering.”

The scenes were filmed in Poland's Krakow and Italy's Rome, Caserta and Terni, with a qualified cast of actors alongside Voight. Cary Elwes interprets Karol Wojtyla from ages 18 to 58, while Christopher Lee and Ben Gazzara play Cardinals Wyszynski and Casaroli respectively. It wasn't easy for Canadian director John Kent Harrison to concentrate such a fascinating and variegated pontificate in 200 minutes, but the outcome didn't disappoint.

“I can say that all those who at any level collaborated [in the making of the movie] have undoubtedly done so with great love for John Paul II,” said Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the late Pope's secretary for 39 years, in an interview with the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana. “They wanted to make a respectful reconstruction of the truth, and I saw that they worked hard to achieve such a result.”

Pope Benedict agreed. “Over and above any specific evaluation,” he said, “I consider that this film constitutes a further proof of the love people have for Pope John Paul II, and of their great desire to remember him, to see him again, to feel him close.”

Undoubtedly, John Paul II, who stood out as a witness to truth, found a perfect successor in Benedict XVI, whose motto is Cooperatores Veritatis (cooperators of the truth).

At one point, the movie shows John Paul motivating a German cardinal to accept the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. When the name Joseph Ratzinger was pronounced, the audience clapped enthusiastically.

“Watching this film,” Benedict said after it was finished, “has renewed in me and, I think, in everyone who had the gift of knowing him, the sense of profound gratitude to God for having given the Church and the world a Pope of such a high human and spiritual stature.”

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome's Regina Apostolorum University.